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A Point There

A first stab at a Point State Park revision

Point State Park is still so confusing to navigate that even those working on a park re-design "couldn't decide what was the front of the park and what was the back of the park," said chief designer Marion Pressley, landscape architect and owner of Pressley Associates, the Cambridge, Mass., firm hired to rework the decades-old design.

"Right now the water's there -- it's just kind of forbidden," said James Broadhurst, the Eat'n Park executive who chairs the Point State Park Planning Committee.

All of that will change if Pressley's master plan is approved by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the Riverlife Task Force, and the public, for whom it was aired last week (and previewed in City Paper: "Missing the Point," Feb. 27, 2002).

Pressley previewed a plethora of park improvements, including:

-a new park entry path beginning at the base of the Boulevard of the Allies

-bike routes that run entirely across the base of the "water side" of the park (the park's main section, as opposed to the lawn facing the Hilton Hotel) and over to the North Shore.

-bike racks, to encourage cyclists to park and walk to the actual Point.

-smaller vehicles for trash collection and other maintenance.

-wireless Internet spots

-a paddlers' landing, plus kayak and canoe racks

-stairs and ramps down to the water, more tables and chairs in the trees above the water and the oft-posited water taxi plaza

-the reclamation of one of the arrowhead-shaped remnants of Ft. Pitt -- the strategically placed shooting spots known as "bastions" -- with a flag.

"We want to do something with the fountain that is more interactive," Pressley also told the crowd. Don't look for computers around the rim; her firm is merely proposing a new, higher ring outside the current border, which will allow the fountain's basin to overflow with water -- touchable water -- even when the plume is turned off. It would also have the effect of raising the fountain, making more of it visible from farther back in the park.

One thing that won't change is the "Portal Bridge," which cuts the Park into two parts. It was supposed to focus park users on the sight of the Point straight ahead but it mostly serves simply to divide the park unnecessarily -- and of course to hold up a highway.

But among Pressley's more dramatic proposals is to turn the lawn between the Hilton and the Portal Bridge into a concert venue, festival site and play area of 132,000 square feet. (The main lawn, site of most concerts now, is 194,000 square feet.)

"How are you going to do this with this hole in the ground?" she asked -- referring to the jagged trench that outlines another bastion of Ft. Pitt. Why, fill it in of course, preserving the outline in stone, much as the much smaller outline of Ft. Duquesne was preserved, along with other stone lines that represent the original river's edge.

Park users may also get more clues about the park's history -- from the French and Indian war to the Pittsburgh Renaissance -- thanks to more and better historical markers and a new visitor's center, attached to the current museum but situated on the other, more visible side of the Portal Bridge.

But it was special events and their consequences -- noise, garbage and rats -- that concerned the crowd most, sprinkled as it was with many residents of Gateway Towers across from the park. Can the mostly useless permanent stage be removed? (Yes.) Can any new stage face away from Gateway? (Most likely.) Can vendors be forced to stay in a designated, more controllable place with permanent utility hookups? (Ideally.)

"These are the details," Pressley cautioned. "We haven't gotten to the details." But Pressley was clear on one thing: The strengths of the park's original design would be preserved in the main, including its status as a "passive park," free of permanent amusements, playgrounds or other such attractions.

Pressley praised the innovations in the original plans of Ralph Griswold, whose firm worked on the park from 1945 to its completion in the early '70s. Not only is Point State Park a reclaimed brownfield before the word "brownfield" was coined, but in constructing the park Griswold re-used materials found at the site, used sustainable native plants to duplicate 18th-century vegetation, and had his own sense of history; the park has been a National Historic Landmark since 1960.

Of course, the park doesn't pass current accessibility standards for the disabled. Nor is there yet an official timeline or funding for the master plan -- nor a sense of what backing it might get from politicians, the moneyed or the media.

Such influence was most important in Griswold's day, as his diaries, housed in the University of Pittsburgh archives, readily reveal. At the same Griswold was trying to move park plans through various halls of power, as an architect he was gaining commissions to update the houses of Pittsburgh's powerful families -- the Scaifes, Reas, Lockharts and Mellons, to name but a few. He spent New Years Eve 1955 with "the Bill Blocks," as he labeled the now-retired Post-Gazette owner and his wife. A few years later he reworked the "barbecue terrace" of their house.

Of course, as the diaries disclose, Griswold also had a hand in designing the Squirrel Hill interchange of the Parkway -- proving his touch was not entirely magical.

"I think you've got a great update," said Bill Mullin, who helped with the park's original design and attended the unveiling. As Mullin pointed out to the crowd: The day the stage was plopped onto the main lawn of Point State Park, "That's the day Mr. Griswold died."

See www.pointstatepark.org

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